The one thing you should know about me is this: I’m the consummate Good Girl. I wash my makeup off every night, no matter how tired I am. I mail out my Christmas cards every Thanksgiving weekend without fail, and thank-you notes are written and posted within three days of receipt of any gift. I’ve only called into work sick once when it wasn’t really true, and even then I spent the entire day too racked with guilt to enjoy it. I’m an extremely loyal and dependable friend, and have never cheated on a boyfriend or tried to steal a man away from another woman. And I never, ever say yes when a friend asks me if she looks fat, particularly if in the throes of a heartbreak she’s been hitting the Häagen-Dazs pretty hard, because girlfriends should stick together and not make each other feel self-conscious about their weight. But the problem with being a Good Girl is this—I’m terrible at conflict. Absolutely hate it, am terrified of it, will do anything to avoid it. When it comes to the fight-or-flight phenomenon, my fight is nonexistent, as wimpy as Popeye pre-spinach. Luckily, I am a world-class sprinter when it comes to running away from everything having to do with anything that even remotely resembles strife.
Which is why, as I sat in the wood-paneled bar of McCormick & Schmick’s on K Street nursing a glass of merlot, I was dreading the arrival of my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, Eric Leahy. After weeks of dodging his phone calls, I was resolved to finally end the relationship. And unlike every other breakup I had ever muddled with my pathetic timidity, this time I had a plan: I would tell Eric gently, but firmly, that it was over, and at all costs preserve our dignity. I was a career woman, an attorney (a career you might—as my friends do—find amusing for me to have stumbled into, considering my above-mentioned aversion to conflict), and there was no reason why I couldn’t end this relationship gracefully. No matter what, there would not be a messy emotional scene, nor would I allow myself to be guilted into giving it a second chance or entering into couples counseling. I had let this relationship drag on for far too long, and just like with a Band-Aid, it’s better to rip it off all at once. Of course, as I sat there, hunched up on a hard wooden chair that was putting my butt to sleep, while dipping pieces of pita into a pot of lemony hummus, I didn’t feel cool or dignified; I felt sick to my stomach.
I’d come to the bar directly from the office, and I had that end-of-the-workday feel—grimy and sweaty, my feet tired from walking the five blocks to the bar from my office in my three-inch stacked loafers, the waistband of my favorite black pantsuit digging into my skin. It was August, and far too hot to be wearing a suit, even one made out of lightweight wool crepe that was supposed to be “seasonless,” but which felt as heavy as a mink coat in the city heat. I’d tried to perk up the otherwise dull, buttoned-up look with a hot-pink shell which I had thought looked great that morning, but as soon as I got to my office I dribbled some iced mochacchino on it, leaving brown spots splattered all over my top, and was forced to button my jacket up over the stain. I hadn’t sweltered in my office, which was kept year-round at just above freezing, but as soon as I ventured back out into the damp heat of Washington, D.C., in August, I began to melt. My foundation dripped from my face, my mascara was smeared around my eyes, and my wavy hair, normally beaten into submission with a vast battery of anti-frizz products, had rebelled, and began wisping up into a Brillo-pad mess. I didn’t feel elegant and composed; I was sticky and weary, and dreading what was sure to be an unavoidably messy scene.
Eric arrived. I caught sight of his affable, smiling face as he waved at me and headed toward the table I claimed, cutting through the after-work crowd of yuppies gathered in the bar. He collapsed in the empty chair I’d been fighting to keep for him, and kissed me on the cheek.
“Ellie,” he said. “You look beautiful.” Considering how grubby I both looked and felt, I knew he was lying. But as far as lies go, it was a sweet one. And Eric was always saying things like that—heaping compliments on me, telling me how wonderful he thought I was. It was a very appealing trait in a man, one that had kept me from breaking up with him before.
It wasn’t that Eric was unattractive—he had glossy black hair, ruddy cheeks, and bright blue eyes, and looked sort of like a pudgy J.Crew model. And while he was a little chunky, and dressed in stodgy three-piece suits and shirts with cufflinks (both of which looked pretentious on a thirty-two-year-old man), he was gentle and thoughtful. Not funny exactly—well, no, not funny at all. He tried to crack jokes now and again, but they were always the kind that had obvious punch lines, and he usually mangled the telling of the joke so badly you couldn’t even laugh at the sheer silliness of it. But he was a good man. A kind man. Exactly the kind of boyfriend the Good Girl aspires to, and nearly identical in appearance and personality to my last four boyfriends. We even had cutsie, matching names—Ellie and Eric, E & E.
But, just like my previous four boyfriends—Alec, Peter, Winston, and Jeremy—Eric bored me to tears. All he wanted to talk about was his job—something having to do with international finance (although I still wasn’t exactly sure what, even though he’d explained it to me more times than I cared to recount)—or whatever football/basketball/ baseball/cricket game ESPN had broadcast the night before. I’m not one of those women who pretend to like sports in order to snag a guy; in fact, I’m pretty up-front about how I couldn’t care less about grown men cavorting around on fake grass in short pants with a ball tucked under one arm. But despite explaining my lack of interest to Eric pretty much every time he started a conversation with “You wouldn’t believe what happened in the game last night,” he persisted in boring me to tears with a play-by-play analysis. Spending dinner with him was pleasant as long as I could coax him into talking about something else, and the sex was tolerable, if not predictable. But just the idea of something more permanent, of lying beside him in bed every night and waking up to his face every morning, made me feel like I was being buried alive.
And besides, Eric just didn’t smell right. It wasn’t that he had b.o., or that funky ripe odor some men get when they’re sweaty. He was very clean and deodorized, but there was something about the way he smelled when I wrapped my arms around him and breathed in deeply that was just . . . off. And his cologne—Polo, just as Winston and Alec had worn (Peter wore Drakkar Noir, and Jeremy, who had spent a semester studying in Paris, wore Hermès)—which he practically showered in, was overpowering and artificial smelling. Surely the man I was meant to spend my life with would smell sexy and good and safe, and not like a cheesy club promoter.
“I’m so glad you called,” Eric said, after ordering a martini.
Why is everyone in my generation always ordering martinis? Is it a desperate attempt to try to return the world to the days before the Boomers came along and wrecked everything with their self-indulgent Me Generation crap? As though a single cocktail can undo the sixties, I thought, forgetting about the impending breakup just long enough to get annoyed by Eric, who had a tendency to be pompous, and then promptly feeling a flood of guilt when I remembered what I was there to do.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you about something,” he said, stirring his drink, and spearing the olive on a toothpick.
Oh, good, I thought, relieved. He’s probably sick of the way I’ve been acting—ducking his phone calls, avoiding sex, snapping at him when he launches into one of his insufferably long diatribes about the yen—and wants to dump me. It will make this so much easier. He’ll try to let me down easy, and I’ll try to look a little stricken, but say of course, I understand, I’ve been so caught up at work (ha ha!) that I haven’t devoted enough time to the relationship. A dignified, understanding split, and I’d be mercifully spared from having to do it myself.
“Oh?” I said, and smiled at him encouragingly. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you, too.”
“Okay. What about?”
“No, you go first.”
“Well . . .” Eric said, and then ducked his head shyly, a nervous smile playing on his thin lips. “I want you to move in with me.”
What? Move in. With him. As in not breaking up. As in living together. I thought I was going to be sick. No, no, no, this can’t be happening, I thought. This is the part where he’s supposed to say something like “I never meant to hurt you,” or “We’ve been growing apart for a long time.”
Eric—obviously misreading my hesitation—said, “I don’t mean without other plans. We could get engaged first. Maybe over Labor Day weekend we could take the train to Manhattan, go ring shopping, maybe see The Lion King—” and then, seeing my stricken face, “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“It’s just . . . um . . . is the air conditioner working in here?” I asked.
The bar had become so hot and stuffy I could barely breathe, much less think clearly. Eric’s words—“engagement,” “plans,” “move in together”—were jumbling around my brain. A minute ago I thought we were nicely on our way to a collegial breakup, and now all of a sudden he wanted to live together forever, buy a house in the suburbs and have babies and minivans. What was it with men, anyway? Why is it that when the woman wants a commitment, they panic and flee the jurisdiction, but grow a little distant and suddenly they’re out shopping for diamond solitaires and monogrammed guest towels?
“What were you going to say?” he asked.
“God, it’s hot in here. Do you think it’s hot in here? I’m burning up,” I blathered, and chugged a glass of ice water.
“No, it feels fine to me. Are you okay?”
“Oh. Yes, yes. Just hot,” I said gaily, shrugging off my jacket, no longer caring about the stain on my top.
Eric had a strange look on his face. “What were you going to say?” he asked again.
“I was going to say . . . well, I don’t think we should move in together,” I said weakly.